Beasts of the forest gather at night to watch and participate in some high-stakes gambling.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
“Isn’t it true—it’s the Director who’s insane!”–The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
FEATURING: , Friedrich Feher, Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover
PLOT: A young man, Francis, sits on a bench in the garden of an insane asylum; when a woman walks by in a trance, he explains to a bystander that she is his fiancée, and launches into the strange story of how she ended up here. He tells the tale of how a mesmerist, Dr. Caligari, came to his town with a sideshow, exhibiting a “somnambulist” who predicted the deaths of citizens who were later found murdered. After his best friend and romantic rival turns up among the victims, Francis launches his own investigation into Caligari, tracking him to the insane asylum where he discovers that the doctor, under a different name, is actually the director of the facility…
- The script was co-written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two pacifists. Mayer had feigned madness to escape military service during World War I. Despite signing a contract allowing the producer to make whatever changes he deemed necessary, they strenuously objected to the addition (or the alteration; accounts differ) of the framing story.
- discovered the script and was originally supposed to direct, until scheduling conflicts prevented his participation.
- The early days of cinema were highly nationalistic. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was initially banned in France; not because of its content, but because it was German, and French distributors did not think they should have to face competition from a country they had just defeated in a war. But Caligari made such a sensation when film critic Louis Delluc arranged for it to be screened for charity that the French removed their ban on German pictures. The French even took to calling Expressionism “Caligarisme.” Caligari‘s release was also protested in the U.S. solely on the basis that it was a German production.
- In screenings in the United States, Caligari was sometimes presented with a live theatrical epilogue explaining that the characters had fully recovered from their madness.
- Among its many honors: ranked 235 in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of the greatest movies of all time; listed in Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s no really a single frame of Caligari that stands out; it’s the cumulative effect of its Cubist settings, the spiky windows and dark alleys winding at weird angles, that gets under your skin.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Slanted city; greasepaint somnambulist; you must become Caligari
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s arguably: the first classic horror movie. The first classic Expressionist movie. Cinema’s first twist ending. The first movie shot from a perspective of radical subjectivity. The godfather of Surrealist film. And it still creeps you out today. It’s the first weird movie. Caligari‘s blood still flows through everything we love.
Blu-ray trailer for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
COMMENTS: The entire plot of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could be thoroughly summarized in one medium-sized paragraph. There is little Continue reading 366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)
DIRECTED BY: Adolfo J. Kolmerer
FEATURING: Reza Brojerdi, Erkan Acar, Xenia Assenza, David Masterson, Judith Hoersch, Alexander Schubert, David Gant
PLOT: In near-future Berlin, Javid and Tan find their fate preordained by a dentist’s ever-changing movie script as they pursue vengeance for their family’s deaths while in turn being pursued by hit men hired by the daughter of two bystanders they murdered while on their quest.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Imagine, if you will, the cross-section where Delirious and Fight Club meet Adaptation as an action-revenge-comedy littered with comic book energy and political commentary presented through the lens of a German director of commercials. Snowflake definitely has the chops to join its 358 other pals, even if we’re forced to pass it over for the official 366-count tally.
COMMENTS: I admittedly “like to like” movies; however, I generally don’t like gushing about much of anything. That said, I beg your forgiveness if I fall into hagiographical tones over the next few paragraphs, as I have not been this much blown away by a movie for quite some time. Adolfo Kolmerer’s feature debut, Snowflake, not only defies succinct description (other than strings of superlatives), it would perhaps defy logic if it weren’t so expertly crafted by the screenwriter and so deftly presented by the director.
Snowflake‘s story concerns a series of interlocking revenge-focused stories. Javid (Reza Brojerdi) and Tan (Erkan Acar) are two long-time friends whose families died during a fire, possibly lit on purpose by xenophobic forces in a close-to-now, chaotic Berlin. Eliana (Xenia Assenza) seeks vengeance on these men for having murdered her parents in a kebab restaurant. Eliana’s bodyguard Carson (David Masterson) reluctantly agrees to introduce her to his estranged father (David Gant), who had been locked away for his homicidal-messianic tendencies, to help line up a string of unhinged murderers. Javid and Tan’s troubles are compounded when they discover that all their actions—indeed, everyone’s—seem to be determined by a dentist (Alexander Schubert) who dabbles in screenwriting. Hovering in the background is a vigilante superhero, a guardian angel nightclub singer, and a rather nasty bunch of neo-fascists aiming to stage a comeback.
Snowflake definitely has its own “feel”, while at the same time it tips its hat to its predecessors., obviously; he seems to be credited now with influencing all manner of roaming-narrative crime movies. , too; the dentist-cum-puppet-master not only directs the action from his laptop, but in several sticky situations finds that his characters have tracked him down to make demands. (This leads to a number of the film’s funny moments, such as when Tan demands of him, “Think of us as the producers and you as the screenwriter. We give you an idea, and you have to make it work, no matter how stupid it is.”) Snowflake‘s political tones unfold slowly, beginning with some seemingly incongruous footage of an interview with an ex-police commissioner expounding on his nationalist ideas, and ending with the discovery of a hidden training facility for just-about-Nazi super-soldiers.
Ultimately, Snowflake stands as its own movie. Using a bold style while slavishly following scripted narrative logic, Kolmerer continued to amaze me at every twist and turn. I was so engrossed during the on-screen action in one scene that I had actually totally forgotten the “artificiality” of the whole narrative construct. By the film’s end I was left with a pleasantly extreme feeling of frisson, and perhaps even a shortness of breath. In order to keep myself brief, there are countless things I haven’t been able to touch upon. But I ask you to take my word for it that Snowflake is as beautiful and unique as its namesake, as well as a damn sight more hilarious than a crystal of frozen water.
Snowflake releases on DVD and Blu-ray on Dec. 4. We’ll update you when it’s out.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a dizzying, hilarious film that combines post-Tarantino action/crime drama and Charlie Kaufman’s metafictional surrealism with exhilarating results.”–Jason Coffman, Daily Grindhouse (festival screening)
Peter Lorre is often cited as an example of a superior European actor who made his way to Hollywood, only to be wasted when Tinseltown didn’t know what to do with him. He had gained worldwide attention for his unnerving performance as the child-murderer in‘s German production, M (1931). Purportedly, even though Lorre was Jewish, Adolf Hitler loved the film and the actor, inviting Lorre to return to Germany. Lorre allegedly declined by responding that Germany already had one mass murderer too many. It may be an apocryphal story, but Lorre’s image was later used in Third Reich propaganda to depict the depravity of Jews, and his name was discovered to be on Hitler’s hit list.
In Hollywood, Lorre was mostly used as a character actor who could steal a scene from anyone. He only had a handful of starring roles that suited him; a superb Raskolnikov in‘s Crime and Punishment (1935) and as Robert Florey’s Face Behind the Mask (1941). To most Americans , he is known for appearing in 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor, arguably the first , and for his frequent teaming with co-star Sydney Greenstreet (most memorably in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon).
By the end of the 1940s, Lorre had come to despise the cartoonish roles offered him, along with the erroneous tag as a horror star (his only actual horror film was 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers). He had long wanted to direct, having learned much from working with Lang, von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, , and Bertolt Brecht. Lorre’s continued friendship with Brecht—a rabid anti-Fascist—led to both being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as a brief stint on the studio blacklist and to his eventually being sacked by Warner Brothers. In 1951, a bankrupt Lorre set his sights on Europe, where he went to direct Der Verlorene (The Lost One) for producer Arnold Pressburger. Lorre also co-scripted a screenplay based loosely on his own novel about the suicide of Dr. Karl Rothe, who headed a research institute within the Third Reich.
Germany, still ravaged by Hitler, hardly wanted to be reminded of the Fascist period. The resulting film was a commercial disaster, despite being acclaimed, by the few critics who saw it, as a masterpiece of German cinema. With America deep in its own brand of Fascism (dubbed McCarthyism), Der Verlorene didn’t play in the U.S. Lorre never directed another film and returned to America in defeat, to continue in the caricatured roles Hollywood craved from him. Yet, Continue reading DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)
DIRECTED BY: Michael Schaack
FEATURING: Voices of Ulrich Tukur, Mario Adorf, Wolfgang Hess, Helge Schneider, Mona Seefried, Klaus Maria Brandauer
PLOT: Francis, a housecat who has relocated to a new neighborhood with his human, stumbles into a mystery involving a strange cult, nefarious characters, and a feline serial killer.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although a neo-noir/serial killer story where most, if not all, of the main characters are cats might qualify as “weird”—and, I admit, it’s a mighty thin line—the events and behavior involved aren’t surreal. They are just seen from a different perspective than we’re used to, to force us to consider our own behavior.
COMMENTS: “What I was watching wasn’t exactly a scene out of ‘The Aristocats’.”
Coming after feline members of a cult electrocute themselves in spiritual thrall, that line’s a definite understatement—and a cheekily self-aware one at that. Although the animation style is reminiscent of Don Bluth’s films, Felidae‘s approach to the material is more closely modeled on the adaptations of the Richard Adams novels Watership Down and The Plague Dogs. Perhaps not that surprising, since this story is also based on a literary allegory: in this instance, a book by Akif Pirinçci.
Felidae is a very good pastiche of film noir detective tropes: the dogged investigator, his reluctant friend/sidekick, moronic thugs, the ‘Good Girl’ who becomes a victim and the driving force for the investigator to pursue the case to the end, the ‘Bad Girl’ who appears to be a distraction but ends up being an integral piece of the puzzle, colorful characters adding flavor, and a nemesis who thoroughly pays off on the buildup. It also deals in the dark subject matter of noir: the violence and cruelty of life, religion and how it ends up being a tool of control, grisly farce, and sex… lots of sex. Placing those events in the world of cats, domesticated and feral, just strengthens the critique of human society, and adds another subject to the mixture: animal testing and its cruelty.
When it comes to quality animation intended for an adult audience, you have to look overseas and be prepared to do some digging. Aside from Japanese anime, a piece in this genre won’t get much exposure to a North American audience except at a few film festivals, if it’s lucky. Felidae would’ve been a tough sell in America; in addition to a serial killer mystery with eugenics being the main key, there’s lots of violence, a sex scene, a couple of standout nightmare set pieces, and graphic depictions of animal experimentation—all with the look of a nice animated film with cats.
Felidae never got a release in North America. Although an English dub was prepared, it was only released in Australia, with the voice cast not credited (the IMDB list for the English voices is highly suspect). There was a R2 DVD release which had both the German and English language tracks, plus extras like a commentary and a “Behind the Scenes” featurette (in German only), but that is now OOP and going for high prices on the secondary market. YouTube searches turn up copies in German with English subs, or the English dubbed version. It would be great if Felidae gets rediscovered and issued on home video like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs were recently.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an imaginative, disturbing and ex-tremely adult thriller… Francis’ violent nightmares provide the most outrageously surreal images since the golden age of Bakshi.”–Stephen Puchalski, Shock Cinema (DVD)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Felidae was scored by Anne Dudley (Art of Noise) and featured a theme song co-written & sung by George O’ Dowd (AKA Boy George), which did get an OST release.
There are eight books in the Felidae series, though only three of the books have been translated to English. The author, Akif Pirinçci, has recently been mired in controversy, which led to both his German & American publishers cancelling his contracts and no longer selling his books.
DIRECTED BY: Tilman Singer
FEATURING: Luana Velis, Jan Bluthardt, Julia Riedler
PLOT: A police psychotherapist gets drunk at a bar with an animated young woman who has recently been thrown out of a cab; back at the station, the young cabbie has turned herself in and the therapist gets summoned to recreate the incident.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Uncanny valley sound design keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat from the start as a barroom encounter, a police procedural, and a car-ride collide together in fits, bursts, and very extreme psychotherapy. This tightly packed little nightmare bursts at the seams with dark visions, psychological overlaps, and camera work that stays on the deeply menacing side of surreal.
COMMENTS: Good luck can play a big part in finding a truly amazing film. My path toward 366 began almost two decades ago when, by chance, I rented The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & Her Lover from a little VHS rental place near my home. Naturally, being at a film festival like Fantasia, one is engineering the good luck, but I am still thankful (and surprised) that I went, by chance, to the press screening for the new German “psychothriller” (for lack of a better catch phrase) Luz. From the get-go I was glued to my seat; an odd compunction to have when the opening shot is of a bored police officer manning a desk.
The humdrum opening: Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) is quietly enjoying a drink at a near-empty bar. His pager beeps from time to time, as he is on-call; but he only needs to leave if “there’s an emergency.” One eventually arises, but only after another bar patron, an animatronically-twitchy young woman named Nora (Julia Riedler) gets him drunk. Sloshed, both from the drinks and her bizarre tale about a young woman named Luz (Luana Velis), he needs to get sober—and fast. Jump to the barroom bathroom where Nora seems to shake the drunkenness out of him, imbues him with a golden glow from her throat, and then collapses. Thus mended, off he goes.
Menacing from the start, Luz maintains an incredibly unsettling atmosphere as the police psychologist hypnotizes a very unstable— and very possibly possessed—cab-driver to recreate a fateful car ride. Going to incredible extremes, his analytic work morphs more and more into a violent interrogation-cum-exorcism. Recollection and reality violently collide as Dr. Rossini turns the screws further and further. Memories are impossibly conjured in the police station: Rossini adopts the persona of Nora, bloodying his face and putting on her stolen clothes, and all the while, a poor police translator is locked in a sound booth. Through an impeccably askew soundscape and the goth-prog-synth score, even the relatively quiet moments pulse unnaturally.
As every faithful reader is aware, this site is cruising along toward “completion” at a very steady clip. With that in mind, I know what a Hail Mary shot this is. And even though the Festival has just begun, I still suspect that this will be hard to top. Using effectively only two sets, Luz crams an amazing amount of nightmarishly surreal drama into just seventy minutes—and Jan Bluthardt’s performance as Dr. Rossini would make both Klaus Kinski and Erwin Leder proud. Presently, I find myself at a loss for words, so I’ll leave this review saying that, due to the review embargo, I’ve had to sit on this for a week before posting it. By the time you read this, I may well have seen it a second time.
Der Himmel über Berlin
FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk
PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.
COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”
It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.
In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starringand 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)